Prison baseball team gives inmates a focus beyond their cells

The San Quentin Giants, one of the only prison teams in the nation to compete against outside clubs, play on a diamond surrounded by guard towers.

frank kosa
Inmates of summer: A member of the San Quentin Giants swings for the fence, which is surrounded by guard towers, during a game against a club from Santa Monica, Calif.
frank kosa
Kent Philpott, a local Baptist minister, volunteers as the team's manager.

As a baseball manager, Kent Philpott has to navigate many of the usual challenges on the diamond: player egos, varied skills at the plate, and uneven levels of motivation. But he also confronts a few unusual problems. When he benches someone or cuts them from the team, it's likely to be an armed robber, drug dealer, or murderer.

Firm though he is with them, Mr. Philpott relies on skills from his primary vocation when managing on the field – being a pastor. What's more, he may be the only one in baseball to lean so heavily on a coach, Stan Damas, who confesses that he knows nothing about game. Mr. Damas's expertise lies in handling people. "I have 21 players, all of whom think they should be starting," says Philpott. "Guys can get upset with me. Stan makes things right."

Philpott is the manager of the San Quentin Giants, a team made up of inmates from one of the nation's most widely known maximum-security state prisons. While many penitentiaries around the country have organized baseball teams, San Quentin's is the oldest and one of the only ones that competes against outside ball clubs.

To prison officials, organized sports is a way to keep inmates occupied and perhaps teach a few lessons on getting along with others. In this age of punitive attitudes about crime, no one is calling it rehabilitation, exactly. Some conservatives and victims' rights groups, in fact, think that any kind of recreation for inmates – especially America's pastime – isn't appropriate for prisoners, especially those who committed a violent crime. But it helps prison authorities battle one of the biggest worries behind bars – idleness. "It keeps tensions down, increasing the safety and security of everyone, including employees," says Marie Griffin, a criminologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Philpott, a volunteer coach at the prison, sees even bigger benefits. "These guys learn to deal with losing, they learn to cooperate, build people up, and become team players," he says.

There is no shortage of inmates wanting to be on the team. More than 50 tried out for the club this year – 21 of whom made it. Some just love baseball. All prefer sitting in a dugout to a cell. "It's a privilege to play," says starting pitcher and team captain Chris Rich. Mr. Rich was a star pitcher for St. John's University in New York in 1979, with great expectations for the big leagues when an injury crushed his hopes. Seventeen years later, in a troubled marriage and destitute, he killed his wife – for which a court sentenced him to 26 years to life.

Now in his 13th year in prison, the 6-foot-8-inch man known as "stretch" is soft-spoken and humble. "I'm thankful for every game," he says.

• • •

The visiting team for today's game is the Santa Monica Suns, who have journeyed from southern California. Just to get to the baseball field in the prison, the team must cross the upper yard, a cement promenade that is delicately poised between heaven and man's darkest impulses. Heaven is represented on the north side by tidy houses of worship for the inmates – three chapels, and a native American spiritual office.

Darkness rises up to the south side with a forbidding three-story building called the "Adjustment Center." "It houses the worst of our worst," says Lt. Sam Robinson, a San Quentin spokesman. "Serial killers, validated gang members, and the like." It is also where condemned inmates are housed when they first arrive, allowing them to "adjust" to the idea that they won't be leaving alive. No other path to a baseball field anywhere may be quite so sobering.

The diamond is on the lower yard – a sprawling, but confined, recreation area that teems with life on a Saturday morning. Unlike your typical field, this one is surrounded by guard towers and a chain-link fence. The outfield grass was donated (along with a good deal of equipment) by the San Francisco Giants, after whom the team is named. Geese wander the outfield, the only creatures that seem to come and go at will.

On the edge of center field sits a sweat lodge where native American inmates pray, paying little attention to the occasional home run ball that bounces into their sacred space. The field offers no corporate box seats, no stands, no seats. Nevertheless, inmates stake claims on preferred spots to stand and watch – this apparently being the incarcerated version of season ticket holders.

The Giants practice once a week and host a visiting team once or twice a week as well. They play about 35 games a season.

As befits an institution that has been allowed baseball since the 1920s, the Giants play serious ball: They've lost only three games so far this season leading into their matchup with the Suns, who are visiting San Quentin for the first time. Consequently, the Suns players are as anticipatory about the game as the inmates are about swapping their prison shoes for rubber cleats. "It sounded different, very exciting and intriguing," says Paul Rosenblum, the team's catcher.

• • •

When the crack of the first bat, the atmosphere suddenly becomes focused, competitive, and ... remarkably ordinary. It could be a game going on anywhere. For a brief period, the playing field seems level for inmate and visitor alike.

The Giants jump out to a quick lead behind power hitters Aslan Petty and Kenny Stallings. After four innings, the Giants look to be running away with it: The score is 11-0.

Philpott passes along a message to the opposing coach: We're not going to let up. It's not the way we play. He just wants to let him know.

Philpott is a fit man, now in his 13th year with the team. On the outside, he is the pastor of a Baptist church in nearby Mill Valley, the coach of a high school baseball team, the host of a TV show, and an author. One chapter in a book he wrote on small churches is entitled, "Your pastor leads a complicated life."

He gets considerable help with the prison team from five other coaches, all volunteers. This includes Mr. Damas, a former cop who is in charge of making sure everyone keeps things in perspective. "Players get especially upset when they are tagged out at third," he says.

By the eighth inning, the Suns rally and pull within two runs of the Giants, 13 to 11. Philpott is worried. His closing pitcher, however, shuts down the Suns in the ninth and preserves a win.

The Giants line up to high-five their opponents, thanking each player for coming. Then, they exit the field and return to life as inmates.

"The games mean so much to the guys," says Philpott. "Parts of it will be remembered for years."

Ely Sala, a skilled hitter with five years remaining on his attempted murder sentence, certainly revels in his moments on the diamond. "It takes your mind off the time," he says.

The visitors pack up, retrace their steps across the walkway, and dissolve into the outside world. Many of them are moved by the experience. "I've played in a lot of places, in high school and college, but never imagined myself playing in a place like that," says Ernie Johnson, the Suns pitcher. "You're in the middle of a prison yard, and the only prison in California with a gas chamber."

The game was "uplifting," adds Mr. Rosenblum. "But I also felt profound despair because we were able to walk away, and some of those guys will never leave."

Philpott believes the baseball team has an impact on the men, and he enjoys the intensity of the work. He once did cell-to-cell ministry for 15 years. But he almost never met the same inmate twice. "This," he says about managing, "is very similar to pastoring a church: You are intimately involved in the lives of people. There is nothing superficial about it."

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